Skylark

Skylark -

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Won from http://thebooksmugglers.com/

I’ll admit, I’d heard nothing, seen nothing, and had no knowledge of Skylark until someone retweeted Meagan Spooner’s “Sky’s the Limit” contest, in which every entrant would win a prize. I, being a sucker for free stuff, entered and the author herself tweeted me a list of other contests she was running to promote the novel. I entered those too and won a prize pack from thebooksmugglers.com, a signed hardcover, bookmark, postcard, tattoos, pin… I swear the swag multiplied. But it’s not the gift of free stuff that earns Skylark a 5 star review, nor is it its drop-dead gorgeous cover. Skylark is practically engineered to be everything I love about YA fantasy, and it does it very, very well.

Lark Ainsley is 16. In her city, the last city left after the wars, young teens are taken to a rite of passage. Their innate magic is harvested at a banquet before they are given their grown-up job assignments. Lark has never been chosen and is therefore stuck between childhood and adulthood, a dud with no magic. That is, until harvest day when she accidentally uses a large amount of “the Resource,” first to free herself from being stuck in a tunnel and then to destroy a pixie, clockwork creations designed to sense magic use and bring the user to the authorities. For those keeping score at home, that’s an older female teen protagonist in a steampunk/dystopian society discovering the power within her. If we had a “Danielle’s Faves” checklist, we’d be going for the full monty. (Additionally, someone going full monty concludes that checklist, and therefore keeps Skylark from being perfect. Much the pity.) 

This display changes The Institute’s plans for the year, abandoning the other harvests and picking Lark as the sole lucky citizen. If you smell a trap, you too have read a book this century. As the book blurb says, Lark can regenerate magic, making her the first Renewable in the city and the greatest source of power ever. The first third of the book, which is so well plotted that it could be its own novel, details Lark’s journey though the Academy: their experiments, her torture, and, finally, her escape. It’s tense and emotional, with imagery that is utterly horrifying. 

From there we embark on a journey outside the city. Spooner does a fantastic job of creating realistic emotions in her characters. Lark’s agoraphobia when faced for the first time with the sky is a genius move that most authors would have missed. Her loneliness and isolation seem palpable and explain her headlong rush to join up with the few side characters met. Of the side characters, Oren the wild boy and Nix the reprogrammed pixie, I fell in particular love with Nix. I want whole novellas of Nix flying around, learning new words, commanding armies of other pixies... Nix rocked. (We can now check off the snarky sidekick box.)

Lark is searching for other Renewables like her, crossing forests and plains to find a place she learned of during her time at the Institute. She gets dirty, battered, goes hungry, and fights to survive. What first seems like a blessing, there is no magic outside the city, is a curse that drives non-Renewables mad. Luckily there are pockets of magic to hide from the shadow-creatures in. Unluckily, those are filled with perils of their own. The entire second third of the novel is Lark struggling, and often failing, to adapt to a new life in the wilderness and find where she belongs.

The last section is, of course, the climax. It won’t surprise anyone that Lark does, in fact, find the Renewable’s city. From there surprises and twists came pretty fast and furious. Some I saw. Several, surprised me. (Check.) The final confrontation was exciting, although Lark does mysteriously get a new power in the 11th hour that feels a bit deus ex machina. The end managed to satisfy while still leaving room open for the sequel. 

The first 95 pages of Skylark are my favorite, of the novel and of the year to date. I loved the glimpses of the world we got, from the mechanical sun to the lack of strong family units. Lark is incredibly likable. She’s resourceful and brave, but also frightened in a real and appropriate way. She doesn’t make perfect decisions and is entirely too trusting. She’s tenacious, but thinks about taking the easy way out. In short, she’s, again, a realistic heroine with flaws beyond “clumsy”. (Checky check.) And in a refreshing change of pace, I’m not sure she’s ever physically described, except for things like “dirty” or “blood-soaked”. If she was, her looks don’t define her. Lark’s not graceful like a gazelle, with eyes that burn like emeralds. She’s just a girl, which made her struggles at the hands of the Institute so much more affecting. Her rush to escape kept me up well past my bedtime. 

I was left with some questions that unfortunately were never answered, mostly with regards to the world and society. I’m a big proponent of show, don’t tell, (check,) but there is a balance required. We really have no insight into daily life in the city, how the class system works, or how roles change after harvest. Questions like “how do the pockets effect time,” or “how are the shadow-people made,” those I can see answered in the next books. I can’t imagine we’ll ever get back to “what DOES happen to duds,” or “wait, is there even a central government?”

In all, I thought Skylark was practically perfect. It’s imaginative and well written. It avoids so many YA tropes, (no insta-love here, folks,) without seeming try-hard. I fell in love with the characters and their struggles. While I have seen negative reviews that it didn’t live up to it’s promise, and I can respect that, I’ll be over here, waiting with bated breath for Shadowlark.